Sex, gender and morality: The unseen history of underwear


bras, underpants and boxer shorts are still regarded as
Bras, underpants and boxer shorts are still regarded as "unmentionables," rarely discussed. Photo/CNN

Why do we wear underwear?

Whether for health, hygiene, sensory or fashionable purposes, the evolution of our undergarments is one that directly links with cultural changes in society.

Despite this our bras, underpants and boxer shorts are still regarded as “unmentionables,” rarely discussed.

Perhaps because even the most practical of pieces can’t help but be imbued with eroticism.

Lacy garments reflect societal changes

A new exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum focuses on this unseen history.

It is the largest of its kind, with over 200 pieces from the 18th century to present day on display.

Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear examines the links between underwear and fashion and the ways that changes in fit, fabric and technology have often reflected society’s attitudes to gender, sexuality and morality.

Arranged thematically with sections that focus on, for example, performance underwear (such as maternity or activewear), luxury lingerie and underwear in fashion, there’s everything from bustles and corsets to thongs and yoga outfits.

There are pieces worn by Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Moss, Dita Von Teese and even Queen Victoria’s mother.

The link to fashion is clear, with pieces by designers including Jean-Paul Gaultier, Vivienne Westwood, Stella McCartney and Paul Smith.

Lingerie brand pushes boundaries

British lingerie brand Agent Provocateur is one of the key sponsors of the exhibition.

Launched in 1994 by Joseph Corre and Serena Rees, the brand has been in many ways, a revolutionary force in British underwear, by providing a sexy, high-end alternative in what was once a very limited market.

Now a global brand, collaborating with the likes of Kylie Minogue, Penelope Cruz and Paloma Faith, their items are known for being both provocative and empowering.

Creative director Sarah Shotton explains: “When Agent Provocateur opened in 1994 that was a big turning point for lingerie, because at the time in the UK there was Marks & Spencer or there was Ann Summers, there was nowhere like Agent Provocateur. They made it all right for you to go out clubbing in your bra.”

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